News | State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - International / Transnational - Europe - Western Europe - Southeastern Europe - Europa links The Presidential Elections in Croatia

Though fragmented, the Right remains firmly in control

ZAGREB, CROATIA - JANUARY 06: Zoran Milanovic from the Social Democratic Party (SDP) makes a speech at party headquarters after the results of the second round of Presidential elections in Zagreb, Croatia on January 06, 2020. Milanovic won the Croatian presidential election in a runoff. Samır Jordamovıc / Anadolu Agency/Picture Alliance

Zoran Milanović is the new president of the Republic of Croatia. The former social-democratic prime minister of Croatia (2011–2015), backed by the oppositional Social Democratic Party (SDP) and twelve other parties, won the presidential elections by securing 53 percent of the vote in the second round against now-former president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. Backed by the governing nationalist and conservative party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), and three other parties, her re-election bid fell short with only 47 percent of the vote, thus becoming the second president in Croatia’s short history to not secure a second presidential term. In these elections, voters chose between eleven candidates for the presidency. After the first round of voting (22 December 2019), in which no-one secured more than the 50 percent needed to win, Zoran Milanović (29.55 percent) somewhat unexpectedly ended up first, with Grabar-Kitarović (26.65 percent) coming in second. The two clashed in the second round (5 January 2020), where Milanović maintained the lead and won the presidency decisively.

Josip Jagić works as a project manager and political analyst at the RLS Southeast Europe Office in Belgrade.

A Campaign That Said Little, But Revealed a Lot

Although the final results suggest a straightforward victory for Zoran Milanović, it was not until the very last moments of the first round that Milanović narrowed Grabar-Kitarović’s lead. The first round included eleven candidates who tried to present themselves in the best light possible. The long, dull, and shallow presidential campaign rested on almost all of the candidates trying to present themselves with reference to the constructed image of Franjo Tuđman, the founder of HDZ and the first president of Croatia (1990–1999) whose role became sacrosanct throughout society as the founding father of the state. This contest about who was closer to Tuđman’s original ideas was from time to time interrupted by Katarina Peović, the radical-left candidate from the Workers’ Front and the Socialist Workers’ Party of Croatia, who opposed this narrative and addressed the crimes of Tuđman’s nationalist project along with the failures of the current political elite, to which Milanović and Grabar-Kitarović belong.

The dull campaign was also interrupted by occasionally unbelievable blunders by Grabar-Kitarović, like in Vukovar, a city that was razed to the ground in the Yugoslav civil war and was subsequently a site of mass executions, where she literally said “I am sure that our dead are not sorry for being dead, because Croatia is here.” With these kind of statements in the run-up to the first round of voting, Grabar-Kitarović did everything in her power to discredit herself as a presidential candidate. This impression did not change in the second round, when the choice was narrowed down to two candidates. Even with all of the baggage of his socially disastrous mandate as the Social Democrats’ prime minister and problems with arrogant and aggressive public appearances, it was clear that Zoran Milanović was the much better candidate.

The lack of substance was also due to the deeply limited political role of the president in Croatia. After the death of Franjo Tuđman, the constitution was altered and with it the president’s role in the political system. The new Croatian constitution limits the responsibilities of the President of the Republic to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It also gives the president a limited role in directing foreign policy by appointing ambassadors in agreement with the prime minister. The president is responsible, also in agreement with the PM, for the smooth functioning of the security and intelligence services, but the new constitution transfers real executive power from the president to the PM. This deeply limited political role stands in marked contrast to the grandeur of the general elections, in which candidates are pressured to go above and beyond their would-be presidential responsibilities. This disproportionality was evident throughout the campaign and particularly in the only public televised debate during the first round of elections, where the eleven candidates answered questions addressing certain moral or social values or about policies under the government’s responsibility.

The campaign also showed how much the Right has succeeded in constructing the hegemonic right-wing narrative around Franjo Tuđman as the “gold standard” for future presidents. Tuđman became a great visionary, brilliant statesman, defender of the national interest, and the supreme leader in the civil war that followed his presidency in the early 1990s. The state’s ideological apparatuses went into overdrive during the hard economic crises to scrub Tuđman’s biography of his responsibility for war crimes committed against the Serbs, as well as the plunder of social property during the privatization of economy in the 1990s. An almost father-like image of Tuđman was constructed that serves to strengthen the status quo along ethnic lines as well as regulate contemporary Croatian politics.

It is no wonder that almost all of the candidates except Katarina Peović remained within that hegemonic narrative, seeking to tie their own visions to Tuđman’s legacy. Some did so with more or less enthusiasm or kept quiet, while only Peović took an explicitly oppositional stance. She was a breath of fresh air, seeking to expose the murderous and criminal side of Tuđman’s regime. It is worth pointing out her most noted reaction during the aforementioned TV debate, when she shot down the far-right candidate Miroslav Škoro by calling him for his public statement that he would pardon the mass murderer and war criminal Tomislav Merčep, currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for killing 43 civilians during the civil war.

The hegemonic narrative resting on the exaltation of Tuđman and the civil war (which in Croatia is branded the “Homeland War”) romanticizes war criminals as Croatian freedom fighters. It also secures ethno-centric politics as the only legitimate form, thus shrinking the range of the politically legitimate and possible. None of the candidates wanted to touch the subject, even if they had reservations, but Peović gave it no quarter and insisted that such statements, let alone policies, were inacceptable, shutting down Škoro for the rest of the debate. The other candidates’ silence also reminded us of the extent to which this right-wing narrative is normalized in contemporary Croatian politics, and the importance of challenging it in order to even begin to challenge the status quo. Although the narrative was mainly a product of the Right (parties on the right, state institutions, and war veterans’ organizations), Milanović and his social-democratic government have also worked to strengthen it.

The Winners, Losers, and Those In-Between

Prior to the first round, Milanović placed second or third in the polls. Only in the last phase of the campaign did he begin to climb as Grabar-Kitarović’s popularity started to fall. The spilt within the right-wing electorate, which became apparent during this election, did not help her either—especially in the first round, in which Miroslav Škoro, a popular nationalist singer and now independent candidate for the far-right, placed third with 24.45 percent of the vote (Grabar-Kitarović had only 2 percent more). After the first round, Škoro declined to endorse either of the two remaining candidates and called on supporters to spoil their ballot by writing the number three instead—representing, for Škoro, the Croatian people. Grabar-Kitarović needed and counted on those “right-wing” votes to catch up with Milanović, but they failed to materialize. Reasons for that can be found in her evident inadequacy as a presidential candidate, leading some conservative voters to abstain from the second round. But it has to be pointed out that the second round was unique for having the largest number of spoiled ballots (4.36 percent), clearly representing the right-wing constituency represented by Škoro that opposed the current conservative HDZ government led by Prime Minister Andrej Plenković.

The elections publicly escalated the split brewing on the Croatian Right, which began not long after the HDZ won the parliamentary elections in 2015. Clashes ensued because Plenković was not considered nationalist enough by the far-right inside and outside of his party. A former European parliamentarian with explicitly pro-EU positions and a certain liberal oeuvre, Plenković continued rightist and conservative policies but distanced his government from the various Christian fundamentalist groups and formed his government with the support of MPs from the Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS)—the party representing Croatian Serbs. In his bid to secure and concentrate his political power, a certain number of far-right members of HDZ were marginalised inside the party. This political course, lacking in heavy nationalist kitsch, became a problem within the party but also among the far-right outside the party on whose votes the HDZ relies.

The first round showed that the HDZ “monopoly” on the right-wing electorate, at least for the time being, is no more. Miroslav Škoro presented himself as the most authentic representative of Tuđman’s political legacy as well as the representative of the Eurosceptic and nationalist Right, protecting national interests and the Croatian identity which, in his eyes, is under threat from all kinds of sources ranging from Serbs both foreign and domestic, refugees, and to the European Union itself. In his speech on election night, as it became clear that he narrowly lost the second place that led to the second round of voting, Škoro announced that he would gather the Right around himself for the parliamentary elections in the second half of 2020. Andrej Plenković had gambled that his position would improve in the upcoming elections for party leadership and parliament should his favoured candidate, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, win. Yet given Kitarović’s penchant for embarrassing gaffes, it was a risky bet that backfired entirely.

While the votes in the second round were still being counted, the right wing within the HDZ wasted little time and several high-ranking members declared the possibility of their candidacy for the party chair in the upcoming party elections. Almost one month after Graba-Kitarović’s loss, the number of candidates for the presidency of HDZ rose from one (Plenković) to three. The presidential elections have weakened the position of the HDZ’s current president and sitting prime minister, increasingly accused of not representing the right-wing constituency due its European and liberal look. It remains to be seen to what extent the right inside and outside the HDZ can threaten Plenković’s government. He still has the roles of PM and HDZ president, which grants him a possibly decisive political advantage over his right-wing challengers. The Croatian presidency over the Council of the EU in the first half of this year also plays into his hands, as his challengers would need to topple the government amidst the presidency.  

On the other hand, there can be no doubt that Milanović’s win improved the Social Democrats’ position. Post-election polls clearly showed that the election raised the party’s popularity, but it is too early to tell if they will profit in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Regardless, the second half of 2019 was marked by a nation-wide teacher’s strike lasting over one month, with which the Social Democrats hardly engaged. They instead chose to sit on the side-lines and occasionally make some general comments about workers’ rights. The Social Democrats’ highly disputed leadership is currently basing their politics on an unconvincing critique of the current government, claiming incompetency and corruption. This focus on the realm of competency and corruption demonstrates their failure to produce policies that could even slightly improve the position of the working class in Croatia. Without such a platform their political potential is, at best, severely limited.  

The role of the president of Croatia is not unimportant, but neither is it the most important in Croatia’s political system. If Grabar Kitarović’s mandate revealed anything, it is that the Croatian political system can live without a president. The most recent elections demonstrated that they are just a stage for a bigger political clash unfolding on the right half of the Croatian political spectrum, which will most likely come to a head in the parliamentary elections later this year. Milanović’s presidential win has hauled the forgotten and self-centred Social Democrats back into the political spotlight. Now, it is really a question of what can they offer. From what we have seen so far—not much. It is no wonder that the month after the elections, major political debates are devoted almost entirely to the power struggles in HDZ and on the right of the political spectrum.

And What About the Left?

The recent elections were also interesting because Katarina Peović, endorsed by the Workers’ Front and the Socialist Workers’ Party, represented the radical Left. Following disastrous results in the elections to the European Parliament, where the Workers’ Front won only 2,500 of votes nationwide, it appeared doubtful that the party would even manage to gather the 10,000 signatures needed for the official presidential candidacy. It is surprising that they managed to gather the signatures without any real party infrastructure, but less surprising that they only received 1.12 percent (around 20,000 votes) in the first round. This result positioned Katarina Peović in eighth place.

The defeat of the Croatian Left after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia was so thorough that thirty years after some on the Left are suggesting these results were a success. It was, after all, the first time a radical-left candidate stood in a presidential election. Katarina Peović ran on affirming and popularizing democratic socialism for the twenty-first century, struggling to break into the mainstream political space structured around a hegemonic nationalist narrative. Once in the mainstream, i.e. the aforementioned TV debate, she mostly focused on criticisms of current social and political relations, along with other candidates such as the current president and former prime minister now running for president, Zoran Milanović.

This is a legitimate way to conduct a campaign, especially when lacking any real party infrastructure, but in order to generate electoral success the Left will need to move beyond criticism and offer concrete solutions and policies that actually engage the real-life problems of working people. This is no easy feat, and the responsibility cannot rest solely on the small Workers’ Front, concentrated mostly in three of Croatia’s cities. Instead, it is the responsibility of the whole fragmented and still fairly marginal Left. Yet in order to formulate positions, policies, and solutions the Left needs an infrastructure for spaces of genuine political exchange where socialist policies and discourses can be forged. These socialist policies and narratives will require a contemporary feel and cannot just be copied from history. To actually succeed, the Left will need much more patience and understanding on the part of all actors, as well as a more sophisticated approach to critique and debate, which today is often misused as a political tool to isolate or delineate oneself from other leftists, thus continuously shrinking the Left’s discursive space. It will take us time and experience to actually admit that the relationship between theory and practice is not a straight line.

The Left’s ongoing ghettoization on social media cannot replace a real politics aiming to engage ordinary people. Such a politics relies on one’s capacity to constantly represent ideas in public and, more often than not, a physical space with real organizations that represent some collective power that is appealing and has a chance to win. The Left is prevented from entering the mainstream by the aforementioned dominant right-wing narrative and underlining relations of power in Croatian society. But the Left has to engage its constituents in order to raise its relevance and power. It is no wonder that Peović received her best results in Zagreb, Pula, and Rijeka, precisely where the Workers’ Front actually has small local chapters. The rules of the game have not changed, and in order to challenge the status quo the Left will need to build a popular base.

Although the Left in Croatia is very far from mainstream politics and becoming a mass movement, it has made a huge leap from the times of catastrophic defeat in the early 1990s. Mostly concentrated in Zagreb, the country’s Left is vibrant, diverse, and alive throughout the different organizations advocating and organizing for workers’ and women’s rights, ecological and communal issues, and social change. Its potential was demonstrated during the 2017 local elections, when the united left (consisting of the groups Zagreb is OURS, Workers’ Front, New Left, and For The City) succeeded in mustering the biggest success since the break-up of Yugoslavia, winning four seats in the Zagreb city parliament. Although these were local elections, it nevertheless represents the Left’s single and biggest success in contemporary Croatia and the only real electoral success so far. Perhaps it is time to revisit that as we begin to plan and discuss the road ahead.